Ralph Towner: An Old Hand With A 'Foolish Heart' (And An Unmatched Style) | KUOW News and Information

Ralph Towner: An Old Hand With A 'Foolish Heart' (And An Unmatched Style)

Apr 22, 2017
Originally published on April 22, 2017 10:50 am

Ralph Towner first came to the attention of a wide audience nearly 50 years ago as a member of the Paul Winter Consort, for whom he composed the group's most famous tune, "Icarus." The piece was so beloved, the Apollo 15 astronauts took the record to the moon — and named a crater after it.

Today, Towner is in his 70s and still going strong. He's best known as an acoustic guitarist, and was born in Washington state. But he grew up a piano prodigy in a town in Oregon.

"Nobody knew what to do with me," Towner says. "Had I lived on the East Coast, I think I might have been immediately sent to a music school very early. But as it was, I had a sort of simplistic childhood — kind of Norman Rockwell style."

That bucolic young life came with a soundtrack: His father played trumpet and his mother was a piano teacher.

"I would go to this old piano that we had and, in the beginning, I would just hold down the pedal and hit something and let it ring," he says. "I remember just being enthralled with hearing this chord sustain and then slowly disappear."

"He already came into this life with a level of talent that many people don't have," Gary Peacock says, and he would know: He's Keith Jarrett's bass player, a composer in his own right and a longtime collaborator of Towner's. He says the latter has a talent few possess.

"Ralph has incredible ears," Peacock says. "I remember on a tour one time, I walked into his dressing room just to see if everything's OK ... and he's playing three notes on his guitar, over and over again. And then maybe adding something, over and over and over. Anybody walking by would think, 'What is he doing?!' What he's doing is listening. Listening to what is there and, now, what comes next."

Towner began playing piano when he was 3, and took up trumpet two years later. He wound up at the University of Oregon studying art, before eventually switching to music composition. It was there that he first heard a record by a musician who would become one of his biggest influences: pianist Bill Evans and his legendary trio.

"I always wanted to record 'My Foolish Heart,' " Towner says. "It's one of the first tunes I'd heard that combination of Evans, [Scott] LaFaro and Paul Motian play. So that tune had a lot of meaning for me and was very important for me starting out as a jazz musician." Towner finally recorded it for his latest album, which is also called My Foolish Heart.

It was also at college that Towner first heard a classical guitar. "I never was really attracted to the guitar until I heard a classical guitar," he says. "For me it's like a small piano in what you can do with it, in terms of moving secondary voices around in your music. You can play all these notes with all the fingers of your right hand."

Towner has developed an instantly recognizable style, one that sounds like he's playing with all 10 fingers of both hands — conjuring melody, harmony and rhythm almost simultaneously. Woodwind player Paul McCandless, who has been collaborating with Towner for nearly half a century, explains it this way: "You hear the bass, you hear the chords, you hear the melody. The illusion is created that there's a whole ensemble playing — a whole world that he creates just with the guitar."

Towner and McCandless' partnership began in the Paul Winter Consort and continued in the group that split off from the Consort, Oregon. Towner has been Oregon's primary composer since the beginning, and the classically trained McCandless says there's a reason.

"These pieces that Ralph created — I always say that if you change one note, it wouldn't be as good ... [similar to] the way Mozart and his music are irreducible," he says. "I think that Ralph's gift for melody, and singable melodies, really transport the listener to another world."

Towner just turned 77, and the history behind his new album brings that tune he heard Bill Evans play all those years ago up to the present.

"There's a little irony in it, since I just had a pacemaker put in about two years ago," he chuckles. "We had a concert in Germany and, uh, I fell on my face on the first sound check and had to go to the hospital; I'd kind of blacked out. Turns out that my heart was beating so slow. And so I called the whole CD My Foolish Heart. I hope it's over its foolishness!"

So do his fans.

Web editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ralph Towner made a name for himself nearly 50 years ago as a member of the Paul Winter Consort. Towner plays the guitar. He composed, perhaps, the Consort's best-known tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL WINTER CONSORT SONG "ICARUS")

KELLY: "Icarus" was so well liked, the Apollo 15 astronauts took it to the moon. Today Ralph Towner is in his late 70s, still going strong. Here's NPR's Tom Cole on Towner's latest solo record and a group recording on the way.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Ralph Towner is best known today as an acoustic guitarist, but he grew up a piano prodigy in a small town in western Washington state.

RALPH TOWNER: Nobody knew what to do with me. Had I lived in the East Coast, I think I might have been immediately sent to a music school very early. But as it was, I had a sort of simplistic childhood kind of Norman Rockwell style.

COLE: Bucolic with a soundtrack. His father played trumpet, and his mother was a piano teacher.

TOWNER: I would go to this old piano that we had. In the beginning, I used to just hold down the pedal and hit something and let it ring. And I remember just being enthralled with hearing this chord sustain and then slowly disappear.

GARY PEACOCK: He already came into this life with a level of talent that many people don't have.

COLE: Gary Peacock knows from prodigies. He's Keith Jarrett's bass player, a composer in his own right and a longtime collaborator of Towner's. He says the latter has a talent few possess.

PEACOCK: Ralph has incredible ears. I remember on a tour one time, I walked into his dressing room just to see if everything's OK and blah, blah, blah. And he's playing three notes on his guitar over and over again. And then maybe adding something over and over and over. It's like anybody walking by would think, what is he doing? What he's doing is listening - listening to what is there and now what comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK AND RALPH TOWNER SONG, "TRAMONTO")

COLE: Ralph Towner began playing piano when he was three. He took up trumpet two years later, yet he wound up at the University of Washington studying art before switching to music composition. It was there that he first heard a record by a musician who had become one of his biggest influences - pianist Bill Evans and his legendary trio.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS SONG, "MY FOOLISH HEART")

TOWNER: I always wanted to record "My Foolish Heart." It's one of the first tunes I'd heard that combination of Evans, Lafaro and Paul Motion play. So that tune had a lot of meaning for me and was very important for me at least starting out as a jazz musician.

COLE: Towner finally recorded it for his latest album.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH TOWNER SONG, "MY FOOLISH HEART")

COLE: It was also in college that Towner first heard a classical guitar.

TOWNER: I never was really attracted to the guitar until I heard a classical guitar. For me, it's like a small piano and what you can do with it in terms of moving secondary voices around in your music. And you could play all of these notes with all the fingers of your right hand.

COLE: Towners developed an instantly recognizable style, one that seems to involve playing all of those notes with all ten fingers of both hands, playing melody, harmony and rhythm almost simultaneously.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH TOWNER SONG, "DOLOMITI DANCE")

PAUL MCCANDLESS: You hear the bass. You hear the chords. You hear the melody. And the illusion is created that there's a whole ensemble playing - a whole world that he creates just with a guitar.

COLE: Woodwind player Paul McCandless has been collaborating with Towner for nearly half a century - first, in the Paul Winter Consort and then in the group that split off from the Consort, Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF OREGON SONG, "CANYON SONG")

COLE: Ralph Towner has been Oregon's primary composer since the beginning, and the classically trained McCandless says there's a reason.

MCCANDLESS: These pieces that Ralph created - I always say that if you changed one note, it wouldn't be as good, in some ways, the way Mozart and his music are irreducible. And I think that Ralph's gift for melody and singable (ph) melodies really transport the listener to another world.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH TOWNER SONG, "CLARION CALL")

TOWNER: Each piece is like a little story. It's like a little world into itself. And once you start writing a piece, the first few sounds that you make you can project it into a complete story. You sort of create a little history out of the first few germs of an idea.

COLE: Towner just turned 77. And the history behind his latest album brings that tune he heard Bill Evans play all those years ago, "My Foolish Heart," up to the present.

TOWNER: There's a little irony in it since I just had a pacemaker put in about two years ago. We had a concert in Germany, and I fell on my face on the first sound check. So I had to go to the hospital. I'd kind of blacked out. Turns out that my heart was beating so slow, and so I called the whole CD "My Foolish Heart." I hope it's over its foolishness.

COLE: So do his fans. Tom Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH TOWNER SONG, "MY FOOLISH HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: